Comfort food is a perennial favorite, and if you ask Chicago chef Stephanie Izard, memories play a big part in its appeal.
"These foods are incredibly nostalgic. Everyone likes to share how their mom made it or the best place they've eaten it," says the Top Chef winner, the show's first female champ, and author of Girl in the Kitchen ($22, amazon.com).
But this kitchen whiz can't resist putting her own spin on things by using unexpected flavors—after all, the dish that cinched her Top Chef victory artfully combined mushrooms, pistachios, and blackberries. Yet when it comes to reimagining classics, "You don't want to change things so much that people don't recognize them," says Izard, purveyor of the always-packed Girl & the Goat restaurant and the diner-style Little Goat. "Stay true to the basics, but add more flavorful ingredients. Guests will say, 'Wow, it tastes even better than I remember!'"
Tomato & Apple Soup
Serves: 6 to 8
Cider and apples subtly sweeten and rev up the tomato flavor. "The additions don't make it harder to prepare," says Izard. "But they do make it taste so much more intriguing." Sambal, a blend of chilis, salt, and vinegar, gives it a kick.
2 tbsp butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
3 Honey Crisp (or Fuji) apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
½ cup tomato paste
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp sambal (Huy Fong sambal oelek chili paste; $5 per 8 oz., amazon.com or local Asian markets)
½ cup dry white wine
2 16 oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes (and juice)
4 cups apple cider
¾ cup heavy cream, divided in half
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Sauté for 10 minutes until pale and tender.
2. Add apples, tomato paste, mustard, sambal, and white wine. Let wine reduce by half (5–7 minutes).
3. Add tomatoes and cider; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour.
4. Pour half the soup in a blender. Purée with one part of the cream until smooth. Repeat with the second batch and combine it all together. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Twice as Good Grilled Cheese
The key is to use more than one cheese. Izard's new sandwich-filling obsession: gjetost, a caramelized goat cheese with sweet sophistication. If you can't find it, swap in any smoked Gouda. To ensure maximum meltiness, turn the heat down and take your time.
6 tbsp unsalted butter, divided into 12 equal-size parts
12 thickly cut slices peasant bread
2 cups grated sharp cheddar
2 cups grated gjetost (we love Ski Queen gjetost; $23 for 8.8 oz., amazon.com)
1. Heat a large, nonstick pan over medium-low heat. Melt one pat of butter.
2. Place one slice of bread in the pan; top generously with equal amounts of both cheeses.
3. When cheese begins to melt, top with second piece of bread. Melt another pat of butter in the pan and flip sandwich with a spatula, cooking until all the cheese has melted and bread is golden brown (about 4–6 minutes).
4. Remove, cut in half, and serve with soup.